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Good disposition improves grading

Culling cows with poor dispositions not only makes for safer herd handling, but also increases calf performance. Because temperament is heritable, genetic selection can produce calmer cattle, and calm cattle have better feeding performance and produce higher-quality carcasses than anxious cattle. Higher profits result.

“Ensuring the safety of people is the biggest reason to improve disposition of cattle,” says Darrell Busby, retired Iowa State University beef specialist, who currently manages Iowa’s Tri-County Steer Carcass Futurity.

“Besides that, cattle with better dispositions gain better, have better health in the feedlot, and they grade better,” he says. “Docile steers and heifers produce significantly heavier carcasses, with more fat cover and larger rib eyes than aggressive steers and heifers. More docile cattle produce higher-quality carcasses with fewer Yield Grades 1 and 2.”

The sum effect impacts the bottom line. Data compiled by Iowa State University shows that docile cattle had an average feedlot profit of $46.63 per head, restless cattle averaged a profit of $26.16 per head, and aggressive cattle earned a profit of just $7.62 a head.

The data came from 47,410 calves fed over an eight-year period at 18 Iowa feedyards custom-feeding cattle for cow-calf producers participating in the Tri-County Steer Carcass Futurity. Participating producers represented 22 states and one Canadian province. Data collected on the cattle and shared with producers included feedlot performance, carcass quality, and disposition scores.

Final disposition scores were averages of scores recorded each time cattle were processed through the chute at the feedyard. “We used a numeric system that measures the cattle’s reaction to being handled during processing and how excitable they become when being restrained,” says Busby.

The visual scoring system followed the six-point rating developed by the Beef Improvement Federation as part of its Quality Assurance Program. A score of 1 designates docile, and 6 indicates very aggressiveness. (See “Scoring Cattle” story.)

To simplify data analysis, the six-point system was condensed into three classifications: 1 and 2 were classified docile; 3 and 4 were classified restless; 5 and 6 were classified aggressive.

Of the cattle in the data set, 58% scored docile, 33% were restless, and nearly 7% were aggressive, making them particularly dangerous to handle. Overall average daily gain for the docile group was 3.22 pounds per day; it was 3.01 pounds per day for the aggressive cattle. Of the cattle in the docile group, nearly 67% graded Choice, compared to 52% in the aggressive group. 

“Carcasses from more excitable animals have a greater tendency to produce less tender, borderline darker-cutting carcasses,” says Busby. “With this in mind, producers can make culling decisions within a breeding program and select for temperament as a possible option to decrease the number of carcasses that harvest lower-quality meat at slaughter time.

“Since disposition is 40% heritable, cattle inherit much of their temperament from their sire and dam,” he says. “The other influences on disposition are management and the environment in which the animal is developed.”

Management and environment aside, culling poor-disposition cows goes a long way toward the eventual building of a docile cow herd. Creston, Iowa, cow-calf producer Ron Dunphy, a longtime participant in the Tri-County Steer Carcass Futurity, has for the past 20 years – since his son was trampled by a cow – used disposition as a culling criteria for cows. Though his son was not seriously injured, the incident was the critical starting point for culling by temperament.

“This particular cow did not respect my son’s physical presence, and she just ran over him,” says Dunphy. “We decided then and there not to subject ourselves to that kind of abuse. There’s no reason to have a cow around that doesn’t respect humans or fences.”

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Simply keeping an eye out for cows displaying wild behavior is how Dunphy identifies cows to be culled on disposition. “While we’re sorting, for instance, we just observe the cattle,” he says. “If there’s one that continually stands way off at the back of the group, is wary, and watches our every move, at the first opportunity we’ll take her to the sale barn and pound her out. We let the sales management know she has a bad disposition, because there’s no point in passing on a risk of injury to some unsuspecting person.”

When selecting herd sires, too, Dunphy considers disposition. “Before choosing bulls, I walk through the group and take note of the ones that move away from me with an attitude that’s more wary than respectful,” he says. “If possible, I’ll avoid buying such bulls.”

Performance reports produced by the Carcass Futurity are helpful, too, in evaluating sires’ influence on disposition. “I can track disposition scores of calves by sire ID,” says Dunphy.

After years of imposing on his herd such selection pressure for temperament, Dunphy’s young cattle are easy to handle. “In all the years we’ve participated in the Tri-County Steer Carcass Futurity, we’ve rarely had a calf score higher than a 2 for disposition.”

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